October 25, 2016
Categories: Research, Evolution of the No-Kill Movement

Is not knowing what we don’t know hurting the animals in our care?

Recently, APSCAPro published a blog post, “We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know.” It was about how shelter dogs pegged as having “behavior problems” often didn’t have those same behaviors in a foster home. They turned out to be shelter-specific behaviors, and the cure was just getting them out of the shelter.

And yet, for years now, we in shelters have been trying to rehabilitate, re-train, and re-condition these dogs, usually not letting them be put up for adoption until we’d “fixed” them.

It’s a great article and you should read it, but the issue it raises isn’t limited only to canine behavior. It’s actually about human behavior, or at least, human psychology: We have a tendency to believe what we want to believe, based on perceptions that may be limited or inaccurate, and then cling to that belief even in the face of evidence that directly contradicts it.

For example, when organizations including Maddie’s Fund began advocating reduced-cost and free pet adoptions, we were accused of wanting to hand pets out to dog fighters and abusers on every street corner. Dire predictions abounded, that the pets would be returned in droves. Dark prognostications of impulse adoptions leading to terrible outcomes for the pets were made. And all of this was on the basis of exactly zero data, but on plenty of shared world-view that people simply can’t be trusted, and that animal abusers are lurking behind every bush, and that most pets are at risk of ending up in shelters.

At the recent Michigan No-Kill Conference, a presenter pointed out that fewer than 2 percent of Michigan’s pets have ever ended up in shelters. That number surprised a number of audience members, probably because as shelter workers and rescuers, they see many animals who end up homeless day in, day out. That narrow frame of reference, though, wildly distorted their perception of the actual numbers of at-risk pets in the state.

So, how did the perception about free adoptions stack up against reality? When we actually sat down and looked at some data, we discovered that people who adopt pets at fee-waived adoption events love the pet just as much, take them to the vet just as much, and let them sleep on the bed just as much as people who pay a fee. Not only that, but the rate of return for those pets is no different than pets for whom a fee is paid.

There is almost no area of sheltering for which this isn’t a problem. Overly-restrictive adoption processes and restrictions, repressive volunteer and foster policies, harsh judgments about people who seek to surrender their pets at shelters, and more — none of these is free from the pervasive bias that prevents us not only from knowing what’s true, but realizing we don’t already have that information.

What can you do about it? Go looking for the truth. How? Try any of these ideas — better yet, try them all:

  • Participate in research, including the surveys Maddie’s Fund® conducts periodically.
  • Follow the ASPCAPro blog, and read the research studies they write about.
  • Talk to your colleagues in other shelters and rescue groups.
  • Go to conferences, and attend presentations that push you outside your comfort zone.
  • Listen to people in other parts of the country.
  • Network through programs like the Million Cat Challenge, and learn what other shelters are doing.

And here’s one last suggestion: Talk to people outside of animal welfare, who wouldn’t know LOS from RTO on a dare, and run some of your ideas and beliefs by them. If you have friends or acquaintances who haven’t adopted a pet, ask them why; odds are you’ll learn a lot about how they see those adoption processes we treasure so much.

The truth is, as humans, we’ll always be susceptible to not knowing what we don’t know. The cure for that condition is simply this: We need to test our beliefs and do what’s actually best for the animals, not just what we think is best, or have always been taught is best, or what “everybody” says is best.